In November 2018, more than 20,000 Googlers briefly walked off their jobs to protest the company’s lax treatment of executives who sexually harassed their subordinates. At the time, there was some debate about whether the protest was a singular event that came in response to some particularly outrageous behavior, or whether it portended the rise of a new tech labor movement. Two years later, after prominent actions by tech company employees related to their employers’ policies on climate change and government contracts, it seems clear that it was the latter — and that the movement has accelerated along with the COVID-19 pandemic.
One place where this has been true is Amazon, where employees working in warehouse and delivery jobs face some of the most dangerous working conditions of any tech giant at the moment. This was true even before the coronavirus began to spread around the world, but it’s particularly true now. Amazon employees have gotten sick, died, and been fired after complaining about working conditions. On Thursday the company announced its largest outbreak to date, with more than 30 workers contracting the disease at a warehouse in New Jersey.
Amazon denies retaliating against organizing workers, and has implemented measures intended to reduce the risk of workers getting sick during the pandemic. But those efforts have not satisfied some members of its own white-collar workforce, who have begun to organize on behalf of their blue-collar colleagues. Those efforts took the form of a digital calendar invitation, the calendar invitation disappeared, and now we have a caper on our hands. Shirin Ghaffary has the story at Recode:
Several of Amazon’s corporate employees are urging thousands of their colleagues to defy their employer by taking this Friday off work en masse to instead gather virtually and discuss how to push for more rights for the company’s warehouse workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, several Amazon employees have told Recode that invitations to the virtual event have mysteriously disappeared from their calendars and inboxes.
Workers told Recode they believe Amazon’s management deleted the event in an attempt to quash a growing collaboration between corporate and warehouse-level employees over workers’ labor rights and environmental concerns.
Amazon declined to comment when asked if it had deleted the event.
As Ghaffary notes, the missing meeting is likely to escalate tensions at the company, where leaked emails from earlier this month already showed mounting dissension over the company’s treatment of labor issues in its workforce.
As chaos roiled Amazon over the past weeks, I’ve often wondered where Jeff Bezos has been in all this. The CEO has largely avoided working on the day-to-day operations of the company for years, according to a 2018 interview with Forbes. As Karen Weise reports in a revealing piece in the New York Times, COVID-19 has drawn him back in — but only gradually, and with little direct communication to the outside world.
On one hand, I’m not going to argue that there’s a single, “right” way the CEO of a tech giant should be spending their time at the moment. All of them have wrenching, conflicting demands on their day, and deciding what to delegate and what to do yourself is a minefield for anyone in a leadership role.
On the other, it has been clear for more than a month now that Amazon’s most acute crisis is in its warehouses — and the CEO’s belated attention to that crisis has had measurable effects. This anecdote from Weise’s story will stay with me for a long time:
On April 8, when the virus had spread to more than 50 Amazon facilities, Mr. Bezos made a surprise visit to a Whole Foods store and an Amazon warehouse, both near Dallas, which the company filmed. Afterward, he asked other executives why masks, which the company had finally obtained, weren’t being required, according to a person involved in the response.
A few days later, Amazon told its warehouse workers that they had to wear masks.
Something for Amazon’s white-collar workers to discuss on Friday, assuming their employer doesn’t find a new way to thwart them from getting together.
Update, 6:01 p.m.: Amazon sent the following statement. It also said that it does not fire workers for protesting working conditions or for organizing.
Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis—we have nearly 500,000 people in the U.S. alone supporting customers and we are taking measures to support each one. We’ve implemented a broad suite of new benefits changes for employees in our operations and logistics network including an additional $2 per hour, 2x base pay for overtime, and paid time off benefits for regular part-time and seasonal employees. We are encouraging those who are unwell to stay home and taking extreme measures to keep people safe in our buildings. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country.
Jay Rosen is one of America’s foremost press critics, and last week he proposed some great ideas for improving coverage of COVID-19. One of them was the creation of what he calls an “urgency index” — a dynamic, publicly available list of the most urgent problems a publication covers. He writes:
Think of it as an answer to the question, “what in the public realm should I be most worried about?” Or, “what do we need to be monitoring to stay reasonably well informed during this crisis?”
During an alarming time, the question of how to apportion your worries has never felt more relevant. And as a reader, we think you ought to know what your journalists are most worried about.
Last year, we published a public guide to The Interface that includes a list of the questions related to technology and democracy that we track most closely. The idea has always been to update that list as our coverage priorities change, and it’s now clear that the most consequential intersection of tech and democracy this year will come in how Silicon Valley responds to the pandemic.
That doesn’t mean we’re changing our focus entirely — we’re still deeply interested in stories about privacy regulation, competition, and the role tech giants will play in the 2020 election. But over the past several weeks it has become clear how all of those stories are now, at least in part, pandemic stories. And a guide to what we cover ought to reflect that.
So: we’re going to build an urgency index, and we’d like to get your feedback. Here’s our initial effort to catalog the most urgent problems in the pandemic response as it relates to our coverage here at The Interface.
- Testing. How can tests become more accurate and broadly available?
- Isolation. We parts of the country prepare to re-open, where will we put people with new infections?
- Contact tracing. Will tech solutions to identifying potential infections through contact tracing aid meaningfully in the response? What risks do they present?
- Labor. How are tech employers taking care of their workforces during this period?
- Global recession. Who is losing their job? Which companies are going out of business?
- Misinformation. How are tech platforms being used to spread harmful misinformation, hate speech, and other bad content? How are they aiding it with algorithmic promotion? What harms are resulting?
- Privacy. How are tech companies’ attempting to reduce the impact of the pandemic affecting and potentially harming individual privacy?
- Competition. How are tech companies using this period to consolidate their power and eliminate competitors?
- Elections. What role are technology companies playing to protect the integrity of our elections during the pandemic?
- Innovation. What is Silicon Valley inventing in an effort to end the pandemic or improve our quality of life during it?
That’s our current top 10. Some other things that feel urgent to us include: what can we learn from what other countries are doing? What cultural shifts are being accelerated by the global work-from-home culture? How do we find ways to laugh and be joyful during this awful time?
Now it’s your turn. What should we take more seriously? What’s not as important to you? And what’s missing completely? Just reply to this message, or email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll update you next week.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️ Trending up: Twitter will remove misleading COVID-19-related tweets that could incite people to engage in “harmful activity.” Tweets inciting people to damage 5G infrastructure, because they believe the rollout of 5G is linked to the spread of COVID019, are included in the new guidance. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
⭐The first version of Apple and Google’s cross-platform contact tracing API should be available to developers as of next week. It’s the first phase of a two-part plan to roll out the system, reports TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington:
The second part of the plan is issuing a system update to build in contact tracing at the OS level. Opt-in would be managed on the device, and both Android and iOS smartphones with this toggle enabled would automatically be able to participate in local contact tracing efforts — whether or not they had any specific health agency apps installed. Apple and Google clarified in a follow-up Q&A session about the system that users would still be prompted to download and install a public health app from their local authority should their phone notify them of a possible contact, so that they could get additional info about next steps from a trusted source.
The coronavirus crisis isn’t over in Georgia, but Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has decided it’s time to start reopening parts of the economy there anyway. Tomorrow, gyms, hair salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, and nail salons will be allowed to resume some operations. On Monday, theaters, social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services will be able to start back up as well. The situation is forcing people to choose between their health and their job. (Emily Stewart / Vox)
Federal researcher and vaccine development expert Rick Bright says he was removed from his position in the Department of Health and Human Services after objecting to the agency’s efforts to push the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. So far, there’s no evidence that the drug, touted by President Trump, can effectively and safely treat COVID-19. (Nicole Wetsman / The Verge)
As of April 21st, a total of 280 startups have laid off 21,609 employees since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. The pace of layoffs seems to also have decelerated some, but job cuts among startups continue. (Mary Ann Azevedo / Crunchbase)
Some Amazon sellers say the company has gone overboard regulating false claims and price gouging. Legitimate products and over-the-counter medications are getting caught in the net. (Cale Guthrie Weissman / ModernRetail)
Amazon has been frustrating for many customers to use during the pandemic, but Prime is more popular than ever. Sales of Amazon Prime memberships in the US increased 10 percent year over year for the weeks of March 16th and March 23rd. (Jason Del Rey / Recode)
Even as Facebook cracks down on coronavirus misinformation, the platform allows advertisers to profit from ads targeting people that the company believes are interested in “pseudoscience.” According to the company’s ad portal, the pseudoscience interest category contained more than 78 million people. (Aaron Sankin / The Markup)
French authorities are demanding that Apple and Google ease privacy restrictions to allow the government to use their technology to engage in contact tracing. Previously, France had been one of the harshest critics of Big Tech, and fined Google $57 million for breaching privacy laws, just last year. We included an item about this earlier this week, but it’s crazy enough that I wanted to make sure to include a separate piece that is specifically about how crazy it is. (Mike Masnick / Techdirt)
Twitter’s trending topics amplified tweets mocking a photo of someone holding a sign that said “COVID-19 is a lie.” Without context, it ended up making the anti-science sentiment seem influential rather than absurd, this piece argues (Will Oremus / OneZero)
Instacart sent a cease-and-desist order to a website claiming to automatically hunt for free delivery slots on the platform and complete users’ orders for them. The website has since been shut down, but it illustrates the lengths grocery shoppers have to go to these days to schedule a delivery.
Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment, the boundaries between work and life have almost entirely disappeared. The workday is now three hours longer and people are tired and stressed. (Michelle F Davis and Jeff Green / Bloomberg)
A group of scholars has asked social media companies to preserve coronavirus misinformation data so they can study how it affects public health. The group sent a letter urging companies to preserve data even as they remove misinformation. I really hope Facebook can find a privacy-preserving way to do this, as it seems like the data could be invaluable to researchers. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
High school students are celebrating prom on TikTok. They’re dressing up, playing music, and trying to participate in a cultural rite of passage that’s gone notably apocalyptic in the pandemic. I feel bad for so many people right now, and graduating high school and college seniors are high on that list. (Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic)
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot is helping hospitals remotely treat coronavirus patients. The robot is already in use at one Boston hospital. The company now has ambitious plans to expand use of its robots to assist healthcare workers during the pandemic. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
Shelter-in-place is giving us a glimpse into celebrity homes on Instagram Live and Zoom. They’re ... pretty nice! (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Nextdoor and Walmart are teaming up to launch a new “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” program to make easier for vulnerable community members to get stuff they need from Walmart. The new in-app feature will allow Nextdoor users to post to groups associated with their local Walmart store to request shopping assistance. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
The family of a man who spoke out against shelter-in-place orders, then died of COVID-19, had to cancel the livestream of his funeral after his social media posts went viral. Just an awfully sad story in every dimension here. (Tasneem Nashrulla / BuzzFeed)
Total cases in the US: At least 852,253
Total deaths in the US: More than 43,000
Reported cases in California: 37,866
Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 482,097
Reported cases in New York: 263,460
Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 695,920
Reported cases in New Jersey: 99,989
Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 200,148
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 42,944
Total test results (positive and negative) in Massachusetts: 195,076
All total cumulative. Case data from The New York Times. Test data from The COVID Tracking Project.
⭐ Google announced it’s going to require all advertisers to verify their identities before running ads on the platform. Since 2018, the company has had this rule in place for political advertisers wanting to run election ads. Here’s Megan Graham at CNBC:
Existing advertisers will have 30 days once notified to complete the verification process, since the company is doing the rollout in phases, according to a spokeswoman. If they don’t submit the documents by then, Google said it will suspend the account and the advertiser’s ability to serve ads until they provide it.
⭐Amazon gathered data on sellers’ products in order to launch competing merchandise, employees say. The company has long asserted, including to Congress, that it doesn’t use information it collects from third-party sellers. This story has implications for ongoing antitrust investigations into the company. Dana Mattioli at The Wall Street Journal has the scoop:
Amazon has said it has restrictions in place to keep its private-label executives from accessing data on specific sellers in its Marketplace, where millions of businesses from around the globe offer their goods. In interviews, former employees and a current one said those rules weren’t uniformly enforced. Employees found ways around them, according to some former employees, who said using such data was a common practice that was discussed openly in meetings they attended.
“We knew we shouldn’t,” said one former employee who accessed the data and described a pattern of using it to launch and benefit Amazon products. “But at the same time, we are making Amazon branded products, and we want them to sell.”
Facebook is going to display the location of “high-reach” Facebook pages and Instagram accounts in order to give people more information about the authenticity of the content in their feeds. The company says the feature is aimed at keeping election messaging honest. This is great. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Facebook and Amazon led the Big Tech companies in lobbying spend in the first quarter of 2020. Facebook ramped up spending 19 percent from last quarter to $5.3 million, while Amazon spent 3 percent more than last quarter at $4.3 million. (Lauren Feiner / CNBC)
Snap is planning to raise at least $750 million through a private debt offering. CEO Evan Spiegel said the money will help “further bolster our balance sheet which will allow Snap the flexibility to continue to invest in the long-term growth of our business, even if challenging conditions continue.” (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Zoom has passed 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants. That’s up 50 percent from the 200 million the company reported earlier this month. The news indicates that the platform isn’t suffering too much from its known security shortcomings. At what point do we start talking about Zoom in the same breath as our other big social networks? (I am basically already doing this.) (Tom Warren / The Verge)
Google Meet’s new Zoom-like gallery view is rolling out across the globe. Previously, you were only able to see four people on-screen at a time. With Meet’s new tiled layout, you’ll be able to see 16 call participants at once. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Automated transcription service Otter.ai now integrates directly into Zoom calls to transcribe meetings on the fly. During a meeting, anyone on the call can click the “Otter.ai Live Transcript” button within their Zoom window to open up the Live Video Meeting Notes. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Today the only thing we would like you to do is send us feedback about our proposed urgency index. We promise the fun stuff will return on Monday ... if you comply with our demands.
Talk to us
Send us tips, comments, questions, and your urgency index feedback: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.